At 4,092 feet above sea level, Marys Peak is the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range, standing head and shoulders above everything around it like an island in the sky — and that may explain why it is home to a recently discovered species of insect that appears to live nowhere else in the world.
The inch-long arthropod is a type of grylloblattid, a distant relative of crickets, cockroaches and earwigs, which it resembles. The discovery was announced last April in the journal Zootaxa by Christopher Marshall and David Lytle, a pair of entomologists in the Oregon State University Department of Integrative Biology. They named their discovery Grylloblatta chintimini, using the Kalapuya Indian name for Marys Peak.
Also known as ice bugs or ice crawlers, grylloblattidae spend most of their time underground, living in caves or loose soil. But when conditions are right, they emerge to prowl the surface of snowfields, where they feast on less well-adapted insects rendered sluggish by the cold.
“They’re extremophiles — they need to live right at the edge of freezing,” Lytle said.
“If the temperature goes much below freezing, they’ll freeze to death. If it gets a few degrees above freezing, they’ll overheat and die — they’ll essentially cook in your hand.”
Marshall and Lytle, friends since their grad school days at Cornell, collected several of the elusive predators on a nighttime snowshoe trek to the top of Marys Peak in 2006. At first, they didn’t realize what they had — conventional wisdom held that the local ice crawlers belonged to one of the 13 recognized gryllobatta species that inhabit mountainous areas from central California to British Columbia and east to the Rockies.
But Marshall suspected these gryllos might be different.
“The word was this species was the same as one in the Cascades,” he said. “But that struck me as really weird.”
Marys Peak, he reasoned, is a long way from the Cascades for a wingless insect to travel. It’s also the only place in the Coast Range that consistently gets snow in the winter, and grylloblattidae are specifically adapted to snowy conditions.
A little sleuthing in the laboratory appeared to support his hypothesis.
“Once you line these things up under a microscope, you can see there are characteristic differences,” Lytle said.
Under magnification, the Marys Peak ice crawler showed different coloration and a narrower head and prothorax than its relatives, as well as a number of distinct features in the male genitalia.
“There are books written on the evolutionary forces that result in differences in the male sexual organ,” Marshall pointed out.
“Then we started looking at the DNA,” Lytle added. “The differences just popped out.”
Genetic testing revealed significant divergence in the mitochondrial DNA, which essentially clenched the argument: This was a brand-new species.
Using similar methods, Marshall and Lytle described another distinct ice crawler species in their Zootaxa paper. So far found only in the vicinity of Newbery Crater south of Bend, they named it Grylloblatta newberryensis, bringing the total number of known species to 15.
Identifying a new species is a big deal for a scientist, and the discovery of Grylloblatta chintimini was certainly exciting for Lytle and Marshall. But they’re also concerned about what the future may hold for their find.
The very isolation that makes the Marys Peak ice crawler unique may doom it in the end. If the climate continues warming at anything like its current rate, snowfall could become increasingly rare on the Coast Range summit, eliminating a key element grylloblattidae need to survive.
“Last year was a bad snowpack year … if we had a series of bad snowpack years, that could be disastrous,” Lytle said.
Marshall was even more pessimistic about G. chintimini’s chances.
“They’re not going to make it,” he said.